Category Archives: Psalms

That’s Not How Any of This Works!

There’s a brilliantly funny commercial showing an “offline over-sharer.”  She’s created a wall of photos–quite literally a wall with photos taped to it.  And she’s showing them to her two friends.  When she makes a claim about how quickly she saved money on her car insurance, one of her friends claims to have saved more in half the time.  The first lady then “unfriends” the person who argued with her causing her unfriended friend to say, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.”

It plays on our implicit assumptions that rules get set up and people are supposed to follow them.  Of course, the rules change–as evidenced by the women’s literal interpretations of “posting to your wall” and “unfriending” friends.  Claiming “that’s not how it works” implies that somewhere along the line an agreement was made that things were to work a certain way.  In a much more complete and serious sense, the Bible calls these enduring agreements about how things are to work between God and God’s people–and between them people themselves–covenants.  A covenant is a formal agreement.

Psalm 50 assumes covenantal language and agreements.  The Psalm comes in two parts.  The first part consists of Psalm 50:1-15.  Here the covenant concerns the covenant people have made within the context of ritual sacrifice and worship (Psalm 50:5).  God puts the sacrificial system in perspective reminding the people that God God’s self does not need to eat and if God did, God would consume one of the millions of creatures God has made.  The sacrifice covenant depends on a grateful spirit–there needs to be an alignment of  attitude and practice (Psalm 50:14).  This is the covenant of sacrifice.

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 50:16-23–becomes more accusatory.  Here, the wicked are called to account.  Psalm 50:16 connects the two parts as God questions the right of the wicked to participate in the worship life.  Having rejected God’s truth with their behavior, they have forfeited their integrity to participate in worship.

They are guilty of four specific sins:

(1) an unwillingness to heed God’s instruction (Psalm 50:17), (2) theft (Psalm 50:18a), (3) adultery (Psalm 50:18b), and (4) slander (Psalm 50:19-21).   Each of these sins is a violated covenant.  The resistance to learning and instruction violates the covenant a person has with one’s self and God.  Theft violates the covenant to respect one’s neighbor.  Adultery violates the covenant of marriage.  Slander violates the covenant we make with truth.  While we may find the harsh tone of Psalm 50:22 uncomfortable, indeed those who tear up these covenants–with God, self, neighbor, family and truth–will find their lives torn apart by the inevitable consequences.  Psalm 50 is a divine, “That’s not how it works; that not how any of this works.”

 

A Penitential Psalm

From at least the writings of St. Augustine, Christians have identified certain Psalms as “penitential psalms.”  Since the 6th century, seven psalms have been classified as penitential psalms:

Psalm 6
Psalm 32
Psalm 38
Psalm 51
Psalm 102
Psalm 130
Psalm 143

Penitential psalms acknowledge either personal or collective sin.  They lament the consequences of the sin.  They pray for God’s healing and restoration. However, Psalm 6, the first of the penitential Psalms, does not actually offer a word of confession or repentance.

It begins with a petition that God not rebuke or discipline harshly.  This initial statement about God’s wrath is what places Psalm 6 within the group of penitential psalms. Clearly the Psalmist was experiencing distress.  If we take the distress literally, it’s physical distress: bones ache (Psalm 6:2), death may be imminent (Psalm 6:5), tears and fatigue are felt (Psalm 6:7).  These symptoms may also be metaphors of the experience of sin.  The Psalmist understood circumstances of suffering to derive from God’s judgment.  While I do not believe God sends physical illness as a punishment for sin, I do believe that sin has consequences–often physical consequences.  I also know that suffering can reorient people to focus on God.  The journey of repentance does indeed begin as the penitent move God back to the center of their lives.

The psalm resolves with a word about evil doers.  One could imagine that David–as he suffered some sort of illness–might have experienced treacherous people circling him in his weakness.  They might have waited like vultures for his life to fail so that they could swoop in and feast on the carcasses.  As healing–whether it was physical or spiritual or both–took place, the Psalmist finds the strength to rebuke them.  If penitence begins with putting God in the center of one’s life and intentionally spending time with God, the next step may be for the penitent to disassociate with people who contribute to sins.  Some people are simply toxic and repentance often requires getting away from them.

Clean hands, pure heart

“Clean hands and a pure heart,” describes a life that is committed to God’s sovereignty inside and out.  Psalm 24 is often described as a liturgical entrance Psalm.  Like Psalm 15, we can imagine that this Psalm was used as worshipers gathered together.  It could be associated with the story recounted in 2 Samuel 6.  There King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.  He is terrified of the Ark’s power and so it takes him awhile to move it into a tent he had established as the Ark’s sanctuary.  In the end, it is brought forward into the worship space with joy.  It could also be associated with a time after Solomon, David’s son, had built the temple.  It may also be associated with the Second Temple period–after Ezra/Nehemiah re-established the Temple in Jerusalem.

Psalm 24 begins and ends with a declaration of God’s glory.  In Psalm 24:1-2, God is affirmed as the creator of the world.  God subdues the waters–a symbol of chaos for Ancient Near Eastern people–and creates both the land and all of the inhabitants.  It concludes in Psalm 24:7-10 with the refrain, “Lift up your heads, you mighty gates.”  And doubly affirms that the Lord is the mighty one, strong in battle.  So Psalm 24 begins and ends with an affirmation of God’s sovereignty.

In the heart of the Psalm (Psalm 24:3-6) the Psalm describes what is expected of the one who enters the presence of God.  Clean hands describes more than ritual cleanliness.  It is a symbol of ethical rightness.  A pure heart similarly describes someone who has the right attitude.  The righteous worshiper of the Lord does not participate in idolatry.  This one does not trust in nothingness.  And this one is blessed by God.  As with other Psalms of this kind, one question I have is whether these are entrance requirements or the effect that being in the presence of God in worship has on a person. Certainly the purity of our hearts is made more pure through worship and our attention to our own conduct and lives more focused through our participation in the congregation.

Who May Enter

Psalm 15 is often categorized as a liturgical Psalm.  One can imagine that people coming to worship in the temple or one of its predecessors might stand at the temple entrance and say, “Lord, who may dwell in your tent? Who may live on your holy hill?”  And they would hear an answer from the doorkeepers of the temple about the character expected of those who worship the Lord.  The NIV uses the word “sanctuary” while the NRSV uses “tent.”  Yet, in the Exodus experience the Tabernacle was a Tent.  So, it seems probably that this could have been used to enter a worship space.

We might imagine that the checklist of items necessary to gain entrance would include elements defined by worship.  Appropriate sacrifice–check.  Worship clothing and attire–check.   Songbook–check.  Voter registration card . . . .  Yet, notice that the expectations are ethical rather than liturgical.  Psalm 15:2-3 include an ethic of speech.  The righteous speak the truth and do not slander or slur others.  It’s reminiscent of James’s instructions concerning the tongue (James 3:1-12).  Psalm 15:4 suggests an attitude of righteousness and a commitment to integrity.  The sanctuary dwellers “keep their oaths even when it hurts.”  The Psalm includes with economic integrity–lending without usury (charging extraordinary interest toward people with little or no means to pay) and refusing to accept bribes.  The end result is not a promise of sanctuary entrance, but a life of stability.  “The one who does these things will never be shaken” (Psalm 15:5c).

I believe God accepts everyone.  I struggle with texts like this that suggest that a person has to earn entrance into a worship space through good behavior.  I’m much more comfortable with the “come as you are” approach to worship.  Yet, I also believe that being in worship should have a lifestyle effect on a person.  Worship is intentional time with God.  As we encounter God’s character in our worship, we adopt God’s character in our lives.  God is all the things described in this Psalm–blameless, truthful, respectful, decent, generous, and scrupulous.  As we enter into worship, we make ourselves vulnerable to the character of God and pray that God might change us in the process.

Overflowing Psalm

My house has flooded a few times.  We are lower than our neighbors so significant downpours have come in the back door or over the foundation several times.  The word “overflowing” is not necessarily a pleasant one to me.  Yet, Psalm 104’s overflowing is beautiful and exuberant.  Psalms can overflow with  theological claims, natural observations and points of connections to the rest of scripture.  All of these are found in Psalm 104.

Theological Claims:
First, the central claim of the Psalm is that the Lord is the creator and sustainer of all that is.  It is especially concerned with the creation and sustenance of life.  The God of scripture, in contrast to mythology present in the Ancient Near East, is presented as a God who forms creation with order, wisdom, and grace.  The Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish talks about creation as the remains of Tiamat who have a conflict with Marduk–the supreme god for the Babylonian pantheon.   In the Gilgamesh Epic--another Mesopotamian creation myth, humanity comes from a lover’s quarrel.  In Atrahasis, an Akkadian epic, people are created to serve the needs of a lazy group of gods.  The language of the biblical creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 draws on these Ancient Near Eastern texts.  However, the Biblical God is (a) singular–Judaism and Christianity and Islam are monotheistic; (b) benevolent as Psalm 104 affirms God is good; (c) compassionate.  Notice how God is described as the One who gives grass to the cattle, trees for the birds, crags for the badgers (“coneys”), prey for the lions and work for humanity.

Another important theological claim of Psalm 104 is that God creates through God’s Spirit.  The Nicene creed speaks of the Holy Spirit as the giver of life (Psalm 104:30).

Natural Observations
Second, natural observations abound in Psalm 104.  The Psalm observes the movement of water to the lower places, the way oil makes faces shine, the habitations of birds and animals, the relationship of the moon to seasonal.  The Psalmist presents creation as a varied and dynamic context through which God’s praise rings out.

Scripture References
Finally, Psalm 104 connects to other passages of scripture.  The openings and closing (Psalm 104:1 and Psalm 104:35) connect to the preceding hymn’s opening and closing (Psalm 103:1 and Psalm 103:22).  Psalm 104:5-9 suggests the experience of the flood in the Noah story–especially compare Psalm 104:9 with Genesis 9:15.  The affirmation that God made the world “in wisdom” (Psalm 104:24) relates to Proverbs 8:22-31 where wisdom is personified in a female character through whom God creates.  Finally, the closing petition, “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 104:34) resembles the closing to Psalm 19–also a creation Psalm–“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

In Psalm 104 these overlapping theological claims, observations and connections to other biblical material are not set forth in an orderly treatise.  Rather they flow–much like the water that runs through the Psalm itself.  They swirl and blend and turn.  It’s a beautiful reminder that in our own faith and thought ideas are not as simply divided into categories as we might sometimes wish for them to be.  The swirl together.